Monday, 5 August 2013

Maugham and Music: Reflections

Being passionately interested in both Maugham and music, it seems natural that I should be fascinated by Maugham's musical taste and the musical references in his works. Some random reflections follow.

Unfortunately or not, Maugham has written very little on music. One of the very few instances in his non-fiction occurs in my favourite essay “Reflections on a Certain Book” from the collection The Vagrant Mood (1952). Here Maugham deals with an infinitely compelling question, namely the aesthetic emotion and its value, and just by the way he gives an explanation why, when arts are concerned, he always wrote of painting, and of course writing, but virtually never of music:

In any case I would not venture to speak of music; the peculiar gift which enables someone to invent it is to me the most mysterious of the processes which produce a work of art.

When they are not obscenely preoccupied with his sexuality, Maugham biographers deign to mention something about his tastes. In terms of music, Maugham seems to have been fan mostly of the Classical and Romantic periods, with occasional glimpses into Baroque or Modernism. He was a great opera lover, apparently with a special affinity for Wagner but by no means confined exclusively to him. Some of the most precious bits in Selina Hastings' The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (2009) are excerpts from his letters in which he mentions that he attended Strauss' Rosenkavalier and Verdi's Requiem. Reportedly, Maugham was a regular visitor to the Wagner festival in Bayreuth. It is tantalising to speculate whether he attended the legendary performances under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, the first Italian to disturb the German hegemony, during the 1930/31 festivals; several generations of Wagnerians have regretted the fact that no recording, however poor, was preserved.

I remember seeing somewhere – probably in Calder’s biography – a questionnaire filled by Maugham in which he mentions Mozart and Wagner as his favourite composers. Mozart is an obvious choice if one seeks a broad parallel with Maugham's writing. If there is a musical equivalent of ''lucidity, simplicity and euphony'', it must be Mozart. If there ever was a composer who expressed a wider range of human emotions with fewer notes, I have yet to hear about him. Change ''words'' for ''notes'' and ''writer'' for ''composer'' and you get the best description of Maugham in one sentence I can think of.

Interestingly, there are very few references among Maugham's writings of Mozart. I can think of only one, in his introduction to Great Modern Reading (1943). He wrote that he can get an equal amount of pleasure from an opera by Mozart as well as from one by Puccini, but it is a different kind of pleasure. It is certainly true that Mozart and Puccini are very different, but if Willie implied that Puccini's operas are inferior to Mozart's, I disagree. At any rate, he obviously was familiar with several operas by each of these composers.

Wagner is quite another story. Here the aforementioned parallel is impossible to be established, which is no big loss since it is a very tenuous one. Wagner is an antithesis of simplicity and sometimes – when performed badly, which is often – lucidity and especially euphony are the last things one thinks of while listening to his long and complex music dramas. But his best creations, when performed superbly, are surely among the greatest achievements of Western civilisation.

Perhaps, one might speculate, Maugham was attracted by the fact that Wagner was a writer. It is well-known that he wrote all his libretti as well as a huge amount of prose (non-fiction). Unfortunately, Wagner was as terrible a writer as he was a great composer; the little I have tried to read of him, in English or in German, is just about unreadable. The long poems he set to music, however, are often exciting and moving, if very difficult to read in original and often scorned by the critics. Unlike Maugham, who was perfectly content to use the old resources of English, Wagner invented his own German language, a kind of ''Wagnerisch''. On the other hand, what is more likely, Wagner's literary ambitions may well have had nothing to do with Maugham's attraction to his music. It doesn’t work that way. Music is the most emotional and least intellectual of all arts. It is entirely self-sufficient and independent of external factors. If it doesn’t grip you right away, nothing will help. If it does, then you may start deepen your deepen your appreciation.

Among the great composers, Wagner is by far the most often encountered name among Maugham's writings. Indeed, a first person narrator in one of his short stories (“The Alien Corn”) once said that he visited a Wagner festival in Germany, which was most probably true and it must have been the Bayreuth festival. In Strictly Personal (1942), a vastly underrated book, Maugham dedicates a whole page or so to his dachshunds in the Villa Mauresque. All of them were named after heroes and heroines from Wagner's operas, and it is entirely characteristic of Maugham to call the saintly Elsa from Lohengrin ''exasperating''.

Then there is the short story “The Voice of the Turtle” from the collection The Mixture as Before (1940). Not one of Maugham's best short stories, certainly, but it has one of the most haunting endings I have ever read. It is also the most explicit Wagnerian reference in all of Maugham, with a two-line quotation from the original German text:

The prima donna was standing in the window, with her back to the lighted room, and she looked out at the darkly shining sea. The cedar made a lovely pattern against the sky. The night was soft and balmy. Miss Glaser played a couple of bars. A cold shiver ran down my spine. La Falterona gave a little start as she recognized the music, and I felt her gather herself together.

Mild und leise wie er lächelt
Wie das Auge hold er öffnet.

It was Isolde's death song... It did not matter now that instead of an orchestral accompaniment she had only the thin tinkle of a piano. The notes of the heavenly melody fell upon the still air and travelled over the water. In that too-romantic scene, in that lovely night, the effect was shattering. La Falterona's voice, even now, was exquisite in its quality, mellow and crystalline; and she sang with wonderful emotion, so tenderly, with such tragic, beautiful anguish that my heart melted within me. I had a most awkward lump in my throat when she finished, and looking at her I saw that tears were streaming down her face. I did not want to speak. She stood quite still, looking out at the ageless sea.

I often read this short story only because of these final lines (which is unjust, for it contains many other fine moments). Afterwards I usually listen to Isoldes Liebestod – one of the most shattering pieces of music ever composed – and I find it even more incredibly affecting than usual. Don’t take my word for it. Just listen to Jessye Norman, Waltraud Meier or Birgit Nilsson. If you prefer the orchestral version, usually played together with the prelude as a concert piece sanctioned by Wagner himself, give an ear to Karajan, Solti and Toscanini.

Maugham must have been fond of Beethoven, too. (It is indeed very hard to resist Beethoven. He is overwhelming). In the same short story, he makes hilarious reference to La Falterona and the Fifth Symphony:

Once at a concert to which I went with her she slept all through the Fifth Symphony, and I was charmed to hear her during the interval telling people that Beethoven stirred her so much that she hesitated to come and hear him, for with those glorious themes singing through her head, it meant that she wouldn’t sleep a wink all night. I could well believe she would lie awake, for she had had so sound a nap during the Symphony that it could not but interfere with her night’s rest.

And in “The Alien Corn” from First Person Singular (1931) he makes the magisterial Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, or simply Appassionata as it is well-known, an important part of the plot.

Before going into some detail about “The Alien Corn”, it is worth mentioning “The Traitor”, one of the best among Maugham’s Ashenden-tales. This is a fine example how Maugham could use musical references to make fun of his more patronizing and chauvinistic characters, in this case Mrs Caypor, the German wife of the British “Traitor”. Her accomplishments are listed without any irony and her character on the whole is anything but caricature. And yet, the juxtaposition of Beethoven and Debussy is a devastating satirical weapon:

She was no fool. She had read much, in several languages, and she could talk of the books she had read with good sense. She had a knowledge of modern painting and modern music that not a little impressed Ashenden. It was amusing once to hear her before luncheon play one of those silvery little pieces of Debussy; she played it disdainfully because it was French and so light, but with an angry appreciation of its grace and gaiety.
When Ashenden congratulated her she shrugged her shoulders.
‘The decadent music of a decadent nation,’ she said. Then with powerful hands she struck the first resounding chords of a sonata by Beethoven; but she stopped. ‘I cannot play, I am out of practice, and you English, what do you know of music? You have not produced a composer since Purcell!’

“The Alien Corn” deserves a special attention, of course. It is a fine story, one of Maugham's finest, and there is a great deal about music in it, for George Bland wanted more than anything else to be a pianist. The first person narrator mentions a number of things that we may, perhaps, accept as Maugham's opinions. For example, his going to a performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in Munich probably refers to a real event, only it must have been in Bayreuth (which is not far from Munich). It is a funny passage with serious undertones. It hints at the mighty inspirational power that Wagner might be for those who are susceptible to his charms:

I shall never forget how humiliated I felt once when, having come to Munich for a Wagner festival, I went to a wonderful performance of Tristan und Isolde and never heard a note of it. The first few bars sent me off and I began to think of what I was writing, my characters leapt into life and I heard their long conversations, I suffered their pains and was a party to their joy; the years swept by and all sorts of things happened to me, the spring brought me its rapture and in the winter I was cold and hungry; and I loved and I hated and I died. I suppose there were intervals in which I walked round and round the garden and probably ate Schinken–Brödchen and drank beer, but I have no recollection of them. The only thing I know is that when the curtain for the last time fell I woke with a start. I had had a wonderful time, but I could not help thinking it was very stupid of me to come such a long way and spend so much money if I couldn’t pay attention to what I heard and saw.

There are also memorable descriptions of playing Chopin and Bach:

He played Chopin. He played two waltzes that were familiar to me, a polonaise and an etude. He played with a great deal of brio and I wish I knew music well enough to give an exact description of his playing. It had strength and youthful exuberance, but I felt that he missed what to me is the peculiar charm of Chopin, the tenderness, the nervous melancholy, the wistful gaiety and slightly faded romance that reminds me always of an early Victorian keepsake.

She played Bach. I do not know the names of the pieces, but I recognised the stiff ceremonial of the frenchified little German courts and the sober, thrifty comfort of the burghers, and the dancing on the village green, the green trees that looked like Christmas trees, and the sunlight of the wide German country, and a tender coziness; and in my nostrils there was a warm scent of the soil and I was conscious of a sturdy strength that seemed to have its roots deep in mother earth, and of an elemental power that was timeless and had no home in space. She played exquisitely, with a soft brilliance that made you think of the full moon shining at dusk in the summer sky.

I have always found Bach's keyboard music, and much of his other music, uncommonly boring, but Maugham's description of Chopin I certainly find very accurate indeed, at least for the repertoire mentioned. Had he heard some of the Scherzi, Ballades or the Second sonata, Maugham would have known that there is much more in Chopin than that; there is, for example, a tragic personal drama of universal import, the drama of the restless spirit confined to a sick body that must be felt by many today. The apologetic tone about his lack of special knowledge is quintessential Maugham.

It's worth noting the obvious: one has to be very careful when one takes a narrator's words at their face value. For here he says of Beethoven's Appassionata:

I used to play it myself when I played the piano (very badly) in my far distant youth and I still knew every note of it.

Now, I know nothing of music either, but Appassionata seems to me a formidable work. To play it even ''very badly'' one has to be an accomplished pianist – which Maugham almost certainly never was. Of course, he was entirely justified to invent this for the story; but it's a nice reminder to be careful with such extrapolations.

To finish with ''The Alien Corn'', it must be said that the movie version in Quartet (1948) is disappointing. There are two chief reasons for that. The first is Dirk Bogarde's wooden performance which becomes particularly atrocious at the piano; his Chopin is perhaps expected to be bad, but hardly the worst possible. As for Bach, he is substituted here for a very passable Schubert, played well and acted beautifully by Francoise Rosay. The second reason is the heavy abridgment of the original. Much of its depth has been lost.

Coming back to Maugham and Wagner, there are quite a few Wagnerian hints in the short story ''Winter Cruise'', one of my least favourite stories due to its idiotic and all but pornographic plot. Yet the piece is fun to read and has some memorable, if farcical, scenes. But to the point – the Wagnerian hints. Since the whole story is set on a German ship and all characters but the loquacious Miss Reid are Germans, it is hardly surprising that there should be some amusing references to Wagner:

Germans were so musical. He had a funny way of strutting up and down on his short legs singing Wagner tunes to words of his invention. It was Tannhäuser he was singing now (that lovely thing about the evening star) but knowing no German Miss Reid could only wonder what absurd words he was putting to it. It was as well.

''Oh, what a bore that woman is, I shall certainly kill her if she goes on much longer.'' Then he broke into Siegfried's martial strain. ''She's a bore, she's a bore, she's a bore. I shall throw her into the sea.''

''The lovely thing about the evening star'' is easy to be identified: it must be ''O du, mein holder Abendstern'' (''Oh thou, my gracious evening star''), Wolfram's serenade, such as it is, from the Third act of Tannhäuser, the closest to opera aria Wagner ever came, in his mature works at all events. One can only surmise that Tannhäuser's eternal struggle between the spirit and the flesh appealed to Maugham; it sure did to Oscar Wilde as evident from The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891).

Siegfried's martial strain is a trifle more difficult to locate with such certainty, but the words certainly fit the famous Siegfried's theme. I will have to refer to the music drama for anything more accurate, but Maugham certainly knew Siegfried pretty well, as shown in the following, highly preposterous, conversation from ''Winter Cruise'':

As soon as dinner was over and Miss Read had left them the captain sent for the radio-operator.
''You idiot, what in heaven's name made you ask Miss Reid last night whether she wanted to send a radio?''
''Sir, you told me to act naturally. I am a radio-operator. I thought it natural to ask her if she wanted to send a radio. I didn't know what else to say.''
''God in heaven,'' shouted the captain, ''when Siegfried saw Brünhilde lying on her rock and cried: Das ist Kein Mann'' (the captain sang the words, and being pleased with the sound of his voice, repeated the phrase two or three times before he continued), ''did Siegfried when she awoke ask her if she wished to send a radio, to announce her papa, I suppose, that she was sitting up after her long sleep and taking notice?''
''I beg most respectfully to draw your attention to the fact that Brünhilde was Siegfried's aunt. Miss Reid is a total stranger to me.''
''He did not reflect that she was his aunt. He knew only that she was a beautiful and defenceless woman of obviously good family and he acted as any gentleman would have done. You are young, handsome, Aryan to the tips of your fingers, the honour of Germany is in your hands.''

If anything, this passage makes clear that Maugham (1) knew the plot of Siegfried quite well indeed, and (2) he was rightly slightly apprehensive in the preface to Creatures of Circumstance (1947) that he hadn't changed the nationality of his characters. Right after World War II, probably few people relished anything about Germans, let alone ''the honour of Germany'', even in so flippant a context.

Another story in which Wagner plays a minor but not unimportant role is ''The Pool'', Maugham's heart-rending study of mixed marriages in the South Seas. When the first person narrator has one his rare conversations with Lawson, the unfortunate white husband, the latter remarks wistfully on London life in general and Wagnerian music drama in particular:

'I suppose Covent Garden’s still going strong, ' he said. 'I think I miss the opera as much as anything here. Have you seen Tristan and Isolde?'
He asked me the question as though the answer was really important to him, and when I said, a little casually I daresay, that I had, he seemed pleased. He began to speak of Wagner, not as a musician, but as the plain man who received from him an emotional satisfaction that he could not analyse.
'I suppose Bayreuth was the place to go really,' he said. 'I never had the money, worse luck. But of course one might do worse than Covent Garden, all the lights and the women dressed up to the nines, and the music. The first act of the Walküre’s all right, isn’t it? And the end of Tristan. Golly!'
His eyes were flashing now and his face was lit up so that he hardly seemed the same man. There was a flush on his sallow, thin cheeks, and I forgot that his voice was harsh and unpleasant. There was even a certain charm about him.

The sublime ending of Tristan has already been discussed. The first act of Die Walküre is both historically important and musically compelling. The latter is by far the most important aspect, of course. The third scene of this first act, the great love duet between Siegmund and Sieglinde, may well be the greatest celebration of incestuous love ever created. From the solo cello that indicates the first meeting of their to the passionate finale which suggests a sexual intercourse immediately after the curtain, this scene is the epitome of musical and dramatic perfection combined in one.

There is another short story by Maugham which is connected with music, though not so specifically. This is the unjustly forgotten ''The Buried Talent'' that was never published in book form during Maugham's life but appeared only in magazine (1934). Much later it was reprinted in A Traveller in Romance (1984) and Far Eastern Tales (1993), both edited by John Whitehead. The two main characters are opera singers and a reference to Gluck's Orfeo and Euridice is made. There is also some discussion of voice and opera which shows that Maugham is obviously a layman in the field, but with passion for opera.

It's interesting to note that Maugham's musical tastes are very similar to mine, for I too love Mozart, Wagner, Beethoven and Chopin. It is indeed fascinating when I reflect that – from what I've read of his anthologies so far and from what I've seen in Purely for my Pleasure (1962) – apparently our tastes in terms of literature and painting are vastly different indeed. I need to read much more of his anthologies, but just about one third of Maugham's paintings I wouldn't put on my walls even if I get them as a present.

Other non-fiction references, in addition to those already mentioned, include the essay ''Some Novelists I Have Known'':

I was once sitting at the opera behind a distinguished and talented woman. The opera was Tristan und Isolde. At the end of the second act she gathered her ermine cloak around her shoulders and, turning to her companion, said: 'Let's go. There's not enough action in this play.' Of course she was right, but perhaps that wasn't quite the point.

Poor woman! She must have been bored to death by what is probably the longest love duet is all opera.

It is interesting to observe that in the same essay there's one of Maugham's rare passages in which he is somewhat preoccupied with the question of taste and his attitude strongly smacks of intellectual snobbishness. That said, Maugham of all people had the right to be an intellectual snob; whether he was especially intelligent or of impeccable taste are debatable questions, but what is surely a very well documented fact is that he made a great success of his life. I am not sure many people achieve this, even on a much smaller scale, especially people as sensitive and restless as Maugham. Still, such passage as this leaves me with a slightly bitter taste in the mouth:

There are persons of intelligence and susceptibility who prefer Verdi to Wagner, Charlotte Bronte to Jane Austen and cold mutton to cold grouse.

I don't know about the last two cases, but I see nothing wrong with anybody who prefers Verdi to Wagner. I do occasionally, though on the whole I wouldn't want to be without either.


  1. Hi, Alexander, interesting post. You mentioned a questionnaire that Maugham filled in. I came across something about a request from his friend Compton Mackenzie from Gramophone Monthly Review, and here is the quote:
    "What a devilish fellow you are to ask a harmless and respectable gentleman like myself to answer such questions, but here they are:
    Favorite song-The Prize Song.
    Favorite Composer-Wagner.
    Favorite Music-The Fire Music.
    Favorite Singer-Lotte Lehmann
    Curses on Your Head!"
    It's quoted in Morgan, p. 378.

    I also remember vaguely that he wrote he found it hard to just enjoy music, using Tristan and Iseult as example, that he sat through the performance thinking about the characters that he was writing about at the moment instead of listening to the music.

    1. Thanks very much for clarifying, and quoting, the questionnaire issue. This is the one I meant, but for some reason I'd got it in my head that it was quoted in Calder.

      The reference you vaguely remember is probably the one from "The Alien Corn". I have mentioned it briefly above, suggesting that he probably visited the Bayreuth Festival, but the passage is really quite charming and worth quoting in full:

      "I shall never forget how humiliated I felt once when, having come to Munich for a Wagner festival, I went to a wonderful performance of Tristan und Isolde and never heard a note of it. The first few bars sent me off and I began to think of what I was writing, my characters leapt into life and I heard their long conversations, I suffered their pains and was a party to their joy; the years swept by and all sorts of things happened to me, the spring brought me its rapture and in the winter I was cold and hungry; and I
      loved and I hated and I died. I suppose there were intervals in which I walked round and round the garden and probably ate Schinken–Brödchen and drank beer, but I have no recollection of them. The only thing I know is that when the curtain for the last time fell I woke with a start. I had had a wonderful time, but I could not help thinking it was very stupid of me to come such a long way and spend so much money if I couldn’t pay attention to what I heard and saw."

      We should remember it is not exactly Maugham who is speaking here but a character of his invention. That said, I think this incident, unlike his playing Appassionata "very badly" in his "distant youth", was drawn from life.